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Asbestos also takes a permanent toll

In his sophomore year at Angola High School, David W. Hanner threw his schoolbooks overboard for adventure on the Great Lakes, never imagining that it would lead to service in the Korean War.

“A neighbor of mine, Mark Greenwood, was a first mate on the SS Hemlock, and he said to me, ‘Come on, and we’ll teach you something,’ ” Hanner said of his introduction to the U.S. Merchant Marine. “I worked for a summer as a deckhand on the Hemlock.”

He liked it so much, Hanner stayed on and received training as a helmsman, officially becoming a member of the Merchant Marine.

“We traveled all over the Great Lakes, up to Superior picking up iron ore and delivering it to Cleveland and Buffalo. We also delivered coal to Ashtabula and Buffalo – whatever they wanted,” Hanner said of his teenage years on the inland seas. “It was different. It was an experience. I learned how to use a gyro compass.”

With his sea legs well-established, the Korean War started, and it turned out that Hanner was just what the Navy was looking for.

“Experienced sailors,” he said with a measure of pride.

After receiving basic training in Bainbridge, Md., Hanner was assigned to the USS Benham, a destroyer. He served as a depth charge loader, deck gun pointer and chief cook. The Benham, he said, was part of a fleet of ships that included the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, whose warplanes dropped bombs on North Korea.

Sailors aboard the Benham often performed anti-submarine exercises, and during one of the operations, Hanner recalled being wounded as he was loading small depth charges known as “hedgehogs.”

“We would shoot them 25 at a time. They’d go in the air and then down into the water and scatter, looking to hit submarines,” he recalled. “Well, one time when they shot off, a fin must have come off one of the rockets, and I was hit in the left leg and in my lower right chest by fragments.

“We were at general quarters, and I did not dare leave my battle station to go to sick bay. You didn’t do that. Later, when it was over, I just put Band-Aids on my wounds and didn’t think anything of them. I was a young kid. What the heck, when you’re 20 years old, you think about going to port and dancing with girls,” the 82-year-old Hanner remembered.

Even when he was not part of the topside drills, dangers lurked below deck.

“I was the chief cook, and when we launched the big garbage-can-type depth charges, the whole ship would shake, breaking light bulbs and sending dust down from the asbestos insulation on the pipes,” he said.

“Afterward, we would have to clean up all the dust that was on the galley countertops, the stove and the coppers, which were the big kettles that we made stew and soup in and stirred with canoe paddles.”

In time, he was diagnosed with asbestosis, a chronic lung disease, and the lower part of his right lung was surgically removed.

During the surgery, pieces of metal from the “hedgehogs” that had worked their way into his lung were also removed, Hanner pointed out.

But the metal fragment in his left leg remains and, in a way, measures time for him.

“According to the doctor at the VA, that piece of metal has moved down from my thigh and is just a little bit past my kneecap. The doctor says that by the time it reaches my foot, I’ll already be in the great beyond,” Hanner quipped.

After leaving the military, he said, he attended night school on the GI Bill of Rights to obtain his GED diploma and training in construction work. The father of five children, he supported his family as a carpenter and retired in 1992.

Proud of his years in the military, Hanner said, “I served my country.”

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